If one ceramic artifact can reveal the history of Tennessee’s earliest inhabitants, what can thousands of them tell us about the region’s history? By identifying the source of the clay, the form of a pot, and its exterior decorations, researchers can determine who created it and begin to answer questions about the lives of past people. Christian Allen, a graduate student in archaeological anthropology, is one of the researchers piecing together this bigger picture at the University of Tennessee.
Allen is particularly interested in the Cherokee people who lived at a historic site known commonly as Mialoquo (40MR3). The site—which dates back over 250 years—was excavated by UT archaeologists between 1974 and 1979. Much of what was uncovered from neighboring archaeological sites at the same time can now be seen on display in the Native Peoples of Tennessee exhibit in UT’s McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, but thousands of artifacts remain unexamined. Focusing on the ceramics and pottery sherds recovered from the site, Allen can begin to understand how the spatial distribution of pottery relates to the formation of Mialoquo.
From a handful of European colonials traveling in East Tennessee and trading with the Cherokee, only a couple kept a written record of the things they saw. Using these journals as sources, Allen searches for references to Cherokee towns so he can better understand what the landscape might have been like for the Cherokee.
Mialoquo first appears on a map in the journals in 1761 and seems to have existed briefly before its population declined around 1780. Allen notes that the community was a mixture of Cherokee populations also known as coalesced communities.
“This works great in terms of archaeological research, because the communities in Lower and Middle Cherokee towns have a different set of pottery traditions than those in the Overhill towns,” said Allen. “The source of the clay used to make a pot, the temper used to strengthen the pot, and the finishing treatment on the pottery’s exterior are all key elements I analyze in my research to distinguish between the Cherokee at Mialoquo who migrated from Lower and Middle Cherokee towns and those that were originally from the Overhill area.”
Using a portable X-ray fluorescence analyzer, Allen can determine the chemical composition and ultimately the clay source of each selected pottery sherd. He then uses ArcGIS, a computer-aided mapping program, to place the distribution of ceramics spatially onto the archaeological site and create a map of the known ceramic locations.
Allen, as well as other researchers nationwide, collaborate with Native communities on archaeological projects, developing new research questions and recreating the stories of the past using an interpretive lens of modern Native American cultural practices. Since the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, emphasis has been placed on identifying and returning these artifacts to the correct tribes. Allen works collaboratively with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to this aim. In collaboration with the tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office, he decided on an archaeological research topic that overlapped his interests with the EBCI community’s. This partnership resulted in the start of his project “Spatial and Chemical Analysis of the Ceramic Assemblage at Mialoquo (40MR3), an Eighteenth Century Overhill Cherokee Town in Monroe County, Tennessee.”
Allen regularly presents his findings at the Cherokee Archaeological Symposium, in the Cherokee public school system, and to the Cherokee elders, highlighting our interconnected histories in east Tennessee.
“The main purpose of archaeology to better understand humans,” said Allen. “By knowing our human past, we can better appreciate who we are as people and where we come from.”
Allen received his bachelor’s in anthropology from the University of Oklahoma and conducts his research at the Archaeological Research Lab and the Department of Anthropology’s Archaeology Lab in Strong Hall.
Raphael Rosalin (865-974-2152, firstname.lastname@example.org)